WASHINGTON – President Bush faces a delicate political balancing act Thursday when he welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao to the White House: seeking China's help to end nuclear standoffs in Iran and North Korea, while urging changes to economic, military and political policies that critics say hurt U.S. interests.
For Bush, the success of Hu's visit will be judged largely by whatever concessions Washington wins on a long list of complaints. Those include allegations that China mistreats its citizens, that an undervalued currency hampers U.S. competition, that China's growing military strength could lead to conflict in the Taiwan Strait, and that Beijing has pursued energy deals with countries the United States considers tyrannical.
For Hu, the visit provides a chance to burnish China's image at a time when Americans are wrestling with what China's new economic and political clout means here.
"Part of President Hu's challenge is also to speak to the U.S. public," Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, a leading administration voice on China, said in a speech this week. "China does not want to be seen as a threat; it's seeking respect."
The strain in relations between the countries is perhaps most evident in the furor in Congress over China's economic policies, which, critics say, contributed to the United States' record $202 billion trade deficit with China last year.
On Wednesday, Hu planned to tour a Boeing jet plant in Washington state. Meanwhile, a congressional hearing here raised misgivings on China's human rights abuse, which some observers feel could be overshadowed by economic and political issues during the summit.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who chairs the House global human rights subcommittee, said in an interview that if China is not pressed hard enough this week on what he sees as Beijing's systematic mistreatment of its citizens, Hu "could walk away from here without any sense of our serious human rights concerns, which only gives a greener light to further abuse."
"You don't coddle a dictator," Smith said. "We have to speak truth to power."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., reflected a growing sentiment among lawmakers last month when he blasted Beijing as a "government without a conscience," intent on manipulating its currency to the detriment of American producers and allowing widespread piracy of copyrighted U.S. goods.
Zoellick said both U.S. and Chinese officials must "demonstrate to the United States public that the economic relationship with China offers a fair, two-way street — that there are mutual opportunities and benefits."
The meeting will be the two leaders' fifth encounter in nearly a year and Hu's first trip to the White House since he became China's leader in 2003.
Hu began his four-day U.S. tour Tuesday in Washington state. He had dinner with Bill Gates, head of software giant Microsoft, Tuesday evening and planned to tour a Boeing commercial jet plant on Wednesday. After meeting with Bush, Hu will visit Yale University.
During the summit between Bush and Hu, many here will expect answers to hard questions.
Michael Green, Bush's senior adviser on Asia until December and now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Bush will want "to show the American public that there's some result, that there's some productive output from this increasingly candid and strategic discussion."
Chinese officials will be watching how Hu's diplomatic performance plays on TV sets in Beijing. Hu will be "looking at how he comes across within China in comparison with his predecessors," Zoellick said.
If China should appear to be focusing solely on style over substance this week, mounting anger in Washington could get worse.
"There's a lot of frustration at all levels," said CSIS analyst Derek Mitchell, a former Asia adviser at the Pentagon. "There's a sense that the Chinese are not giving on anything."